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Hinges of History

by Arthur Herman

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray (Bantam, 496 pp., $30)

Heraclitus called war “the father of all things”; James Lacey and Williamson Murray see war as the father of civilization and, more  specifically, of major global shifts of power.

That’s a less obvious approach to the study of war than it first seems, especially in the bold way the authors go about it. Some battles and campaigns in their Top 20 seem all too familiar: Marathon, the Spanish Armada, D-Day, and the Battle of Britain. Others do not: Yarmuk (the Arab defeat in 636 of the Byzantine Empire, a battle that meant Islam was here to stay), Breitenfeld (the 1631 clash between Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus and the armies of the imperial Habsburgs that set the stage for the emergence of professional national armies), and the last battle on their list, Operation Peach, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some might quibble about their idiosyncratic choices. Why Marathon instead of Salamis, for instance, and why 1066, the Norman invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings, instead of 732, when the Battle of Poitiers halted the remorseless Arab advance into Western Europe (until recently, that is)?

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